Uncle Sam Built it, but No One Came: Why Government Can't Communicate

President Obama has promised to make his Administration "the most open and transparent in history." But, in a recent survey conducted by Foresee Results and Nextgov, the Administration earned a score of only 46 out of a possible 100 on achieving transparency.

Sure, what's needed is more than marketing. But, as an expert in bringing clarity and accessibility to business and government communications, I can't help but spot several failings that could be cured by better understanding how people seek, find and process information.

To be blunt, the Administration is pursuing a strategy of "push," not "pull." Yes, I applaud the efforts to disclose data in an accessible and clear manner on websites such as recovery.gov. But these efforts only reach those who seek out the information -- a small segment of the citizenry who are more likely to be informed, active and pro-Obama than the general public. For the Administration to count on people visiting its websites is like a family hosting a dinner party by posting an invitation on a telephone pole and then being disappointed when only their own household members and closest friends show up.

In real life, people get their information from their daily experience. How do people form their opinions of the economic stimulus? On the positive side, folks may notice that many highways in their communities are being repaired. Seeing road crews at work, they conclude: "They really are spending money, creating jobs and getting things done." More likely, people see that their neighbors are still out of work, their own work hours are being cut back, lovely houses are still on the market after four months and homes are being foreclosed on the other side of town. So instead they conclude, "All that money spent, and nothing to show for it."

It takes more than slightly sprightlier websites to change these attitudes. Every member of the United States House and Senate and virtually every federal agency has a website. But, in the Foresee Results/NextGov survey, federal agencies earned an aggregate score of only 40, while Congress rated an anemic 37. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Siegel+Gale in March 2010, two-thirds of Americans believe that federal agencies do a poor job of explaining their purpose. Most people just don't log onto their laptops to check out their Senators and Representatives, much less the General Services Administration (GSA), Office of Personnel Management (OPM) or Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Science shows that we process facial recognition in a different part of our brain than other visual stimuli. For instance, few among us love insurance companies. But who can resist Flo, the quirky but likable salesclerk in Progressive Insurance ads who attracts our attention to the tote board of premium comparisons that are really the low-price message of these commercials? A message delivered by a person is much more likely to stick and be remembered than facts and figures posted as tables or graphs. While recovery.org is filled with bar charts and numbers -- many well laid out -- they don't engage or even motivate citizens because they are sterile and clinical.

So how can government communicate more clearly? Follow four rules from the disciplines of psychology, sales and simplification.

Put a human face on the message. President Obama's advisers should recognize that they still have the benefit of one easily recognizable, widely admired and often compelling communicator -- the President himself. There are many other effective communicators from both parties and every level of government - among them, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Given the opportunities, many more stars could be created.

Don't wait for people to come to you. Revel in good news. Respond to crises. Promote government websites on sites that the general public visits. Even President Bush had to come to Lower Manhattan and wield a bullhorn for the most memorable moment of his presidency.

Speak in plain English. Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address had few words of more than two syllables. No more than seven clear, crisp messages. Even the Almighty had only 10 commandments.

Data is not information. Before you use a number, explain what it means.

Mario Cuomo famously said, "We campaign in poetry. But we govern in prose." That's true. But the prose need not be prosaic.